Green Pastures

Can a church, a land trust, and the memory of a famous racehorse save Seabiscuit's ranch?

By James Conaway

California's Ridgewood Ranch, home of Seabiscuit

Credit: John Birchard

In 1938, the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore was the scene of an epochal upset: The symbol of equine hauteur—the famous War Admiral—was taken on by a somewhat ungainly challenger named Seabiscuit, and defeated. This Depression-era contest, long anticipated and later described by Laura Hillenbrand in the bestseller Seabiscuit: An American Legendas "one of the biggest sports moments of the century," thrilled spectators, and Seabiscuit touched something deep within the American psyche. One journalist who covered racing wrote, "The affection that this inarticulate brown horse had aroused was a most amazing thing."

The following year, at the Santa Anita racetrack in southern California, Seabiscuit badly injured his left foreleg. Few people expected him to recover, but recover he did. Not only did he run his second most famous race at Santa Anita in 1940, but he also won. Millions of Americans wiped out by the Depression were faced with starting over, and the example set by this triumphant, ragged-gaited horse did a lot for the national morale.

Seabiscuit's surprising recovery had taken place at a remote ranch in Mendocino County, in northern California. A gorgeous, 5,000-acre spread of blond meadowland, steep slopes, and towering conifers on the east side of the Coast Range, Ridgewood is today owned by a discreet religious group called Christ's Church of the Golden Rule.

One of the church's representatives, Tracy Livingston, is leading a tour of what's left of Ridgewood's glory. "Seabiscuit was quite a character," he says. "Once he took a goat by the nape of the neck and tossed it out of his stall. He tolerated a bantam rooster sitting on his back." Livingston wears a baseball cap, a denim shirt, and a gray beard of prophetic density. He may be an elected member of the church's advisory committee, but he is also a promoter of Seabiscuit's memory and, it turns out, a strong advocate of land conservation.

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